Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Q&A About Choosing a Mate

Three Essential Decisions

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/qa/dating.htm

Updated 02-15-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This brief YouTube video previews key ideas in this article.

      This is one of a series of articles in online Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. This article for courting partners exists because sociologists estimate almost half of U.S. marriages fail legally. Untold millions more fail psychologically, but stop short of legal divorce. Implication - most U.S. mates unintentionally pick the wrong partner, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. This is specially true for single parents.

      The wrong people are psychologically wounded, unaware, and in denial of this. Wrong reasons to commit include ending loneliness and anxiety, rescuing, legitimizing sex, proving something to someone, revenge, codependence, and other unhealthy motives. The wrong time is before both mates reduce their wounds and gain this knowledge. Does this make sense to you? 

      This page offers questions and answers to help typical courting partners make wise commitment choices. The questions are for (a) all couples, and (b) couples with one or more kids from prior unions (stepfamily courtships).

      Before continuing, pause, breathe, and reflect - why are you reading this? What do you need?  

      The best way to prepare to make wise long-term commitment decisions is for both of you to patiently invest time studying and discussing (at least) online lessons 1-4 in this nonprofit Web site.

  Courtship Questions

      Options - read all these questions first before following any links. Thoughtfully discuss these items with your partner. Your respective thoughts and feelings are just as important as the answers.

  Questions for All Courting Couples

      Some underlined links will take you to paragraphs in this page, so use your back button to return here. Other underlined links will open a new page, so close them to return

1)  What needs are my partner and I trying to fill by dating seriously?

2)  What are the basic requirements for a healthy long-term primary relationship?

3)  Are there reliable courtship danger signs I should know and heed? Yes.

4)  My partner and I have different religious faiths. How concerned should I be about this?

5)  I love a person of the same gender. What factors should we consider before exchanging vows?

6)  My partner and I are much different in age. Should we be concerned? Maybe.

7)  How do I know if I should commit to this partner and his or her family?

8)  How do I know of it's the right time for me to commit?

9)  How do I know if I'm committing for the right reasons?

10)  Does living together before marriage improve our odds of staying together? See these brief research articles.

11)  What resources are available to help us make wise commitment decisions?

  Additional Questions for Courting Stepfamily Couples

      Find suggestions, resources, and answers to all these questions and more in online Lesson 7 and the related YouTube videos in my Playlists 7a and 7b. My practical guidebook for Lesson 7 is Stepfamily Courtship - make three right re/marriage choices (Xlibris.com, 2003). Most of the book applies to all couples.

12)  Is courtship different "the second time around"? No and yes.

13)  If I date a person with kids, what should I look for

14)  I'm a single parent. What co-parenting traits should I look for in a new partner?

15)  What mistakes can typical partners make in deciding to form or join a stepfamily? 

16)  What are the best sources of stepfamily education for courting co-parents?

17)  How long after divorce should typical parents wait to re/marry?

18)  How soon should I tell my child/ren I'm serious about committing to a new partner?

19)  Is there a best way  to conduct stepfamily courtship? Yes!

20)  How can I tell if I'm ready to commit to a stepfamily?

21)  Why are typical U.S. stepfamilies at higher risk of psychological or legal divorce than average biofamilies (first marriages)? There are five related reasons. 

22)  How can we tell if we need pre-re/marital counseling, and how can we pick an effective counselor?

23)  Are there any danger signals in addition to those above that courting co-parents ought to watch for before committing to join or form a stepfamily? Yes!

24)  How heavily should I weigh my child/ran's opinions in deciding if, to whom, and when to re/marry?

25)  We've decided to re/wed. Are there any helpful guides for planning our wedding and honeymoon?

26)  I love the person I'm dating, and I'm not crazy about one (or more) of their kids. Is that likely to improve if or when we live together?

27)  My partner and I disagree on trying to conceive one or more ("ours") kids. How concerned should I be about this?

28)  Other people tell us we'll be forming a stepfamily if we re/marry, but my partner and/or I don't see it that way. Who's right?

29)  I feel my partner and I ought to wait and learn more about what we're getting into, and s/he's pushing to re/marry soon. What should we do?

30)  My partner is (or I am) uncomfortable admitting prior marriages and/or divorces. Is that normal and OK?

31)  After all my children have been through, I feel strongly that they should come first if we re/marry. My partner seems ambivalent or opposed to that. What should we do?

32)  My partner isn't interested in learning about stepfamilies. Should I insist?

33)  Is re/marriage with a childless partner more stressful than with a single parent? Maybe, depending on many factors.

34)  Overall, what are the main suggestions you have to help us make wise stepfamily-commitment decisions?

 If you don't see your question here, please ask!

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Q4)  My partner and I have different religious faiths. How concerned should I be about this?

      Many factors determine whether courting partners' differences over religious faith will be a major relationship and family stressor. Such differences are one of many values and loyalty conflicts your family will experience after commitment vows. If religion (vs. spirituality) and biofamily religious traditions and bonds are high in one or both suitor's personal priorities, this may be a compelling reason to remain friends vs. vowing commitment.

      The real issue is how effectively you two can avoid or resolve values conflicts without violating your integrities and losing self respect. Do you have an effective strategy to do that yet? 

      For more perspective, see these articles on religion and spirituality.

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Q6)  My partner and I are much different in age. Should we be concerned about this?

      As people age, some priorities change and they gradually lose some physical abilities. They're also more prone to health issues. The wider the age gap between mates, the more likely it is that they will encounter significant values differences - e.g. he wants a restful vacation by the lake, and she wants to travel or backpack in the mountains. It's also more likely that the older partner will die well before the younger mate, leaving her or him without a companion in old age.

      The real issue is not the age difference, It is how well you two can negotiate major values clashes and remain solidly committed. How effective is your strategy at doing this now? See this for more detail and options.

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Q11)  What resources are available to help us make wise commitment decisions?

      In this Web site, the key resources are:

  • this self-improvement course,

  • these common danger signs; and...

  • these right partner / right reasons / right time worksheets.

  • My YouTube Playlist 4b links to 30 brief videos about courtship. marriage, and divorce. These videos supplement the articles in lesson 4.

      There are also some well-known marriage-prep Web sites and services, like Prepare/Enrich, FOCCUS (for Catholics), and Relate. While these are useful, none of them (to my knowledge) acknowledges these hazards or  offers the same assessment scope as this non-profit Break the Cycle! site. 

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Q12)  Is courtship different "the second time around"?

       Compared to dating "the first time around." courtship involving prior children and former mates is the same in some ways, and different in others:

Courtship Similarities ...and Differences

You partners are in love, and seek to fill most of the same needs

You each have more life experience, probably including parenting and divorce

You're each deciding whether to make another) personal lifetime commitment. You and/or your dating partner may have one or more ex mates and minor and/or grown kids near or far to consider in your decision.
You (probably) live in the same society, with the same laws, customs, traditions, freedoms, and opportunities. You're older, which probably means your priorities and some values are different than your first courtship. You may or may not be more mature.
You partners each face the same basic three commitment choices: pick the right person/s, for the right reasons, at the right time.  There are many more factors to evaluate in making wise re/marriage decisions, and more people are affected by them. 
You each must balance dating with a web of other obligations, activities, and relationships.  The odds are higher you two have bigger age, religion, education, and ethnic differences, which often implies more significant values conflicts.
The decision to re/marry and/or cohabit causes both you partners complex tangible and abstract losses (broken bonds) and gains, adding to any prior losses you need to mourn. You're evaluating whether to form or join an alien multi-home stepfamily, not a "traditional" intact biofamily. Your odds of long-term success are probably lower without you both wanting to do self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7
You each have friends, relatives, and supporters who will affect your courtship process and commitment decisions to some degree. Supporters and professional advisors will probably be unaware of the (step)family realities, differences, hazards, and the adjustment tasks your family adults and children face if you re/wed.
If you partners choose to commit, you'll design a social / religious ceremony to proclaim, legitimize, and celebrate your union and vows. Your commitment ceremony and any honeymoon will be far more complex, risky, and more likely to create major values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles.

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Q15)  What mistakes do typical partners make before deciding to form or join a stepfamily? 

      Common errors (uninformed decisions) include...

Assuming that these five major hazards don't apply to you, your kids, and ex mate/s; and/or that these 16 danger signs are "for other people."

Assuming that "re/marriage is essentially the same as first marriage, so there's nothing I need to learn." Unawareness is one of five major reasons millions of U.S. stepfamily couples re/divorce. See this quiz and self-improvement Lesson 7.  Another common error is...

Assuming that co-parenting and relationships in a new stepfamily are "not much different than in a(n intact) biofamily." They differ greatly in children's needs, family norms and environments, relationship barriers, family-adjustment tasks, and developmental stages!

Excluding kids' other bioparents (ex mates) from full stepfamily membership. Their genes, needs, opinions, legal rights, finances, ancestry, actions, and values will affect your lives for decades, including nurturing any grandchildren.

Not learning stepfamily basics and realities vs. these 60 common myths, and/or not taking the implications of these realities seriously.

      Other common co-parent mistakes in courtship are...

Not telling your child/ren or ex mate/s you're seriously considering re/marriage until the last minute. They need time to learn, grieve, process, and adjust!

Not bothering to learn or respect (a) potential stepkids' developmental and special adjustment needs, and (b) your related need to patiently build a co-parenting team to help fill those needs (to nurture).

Allowing + neediness + idealizations + unawareness + psychological wounds to persuade you to commit to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time.

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 Q16)  What are the best sources of stepfamily education for courting co-parents?

      This Website exists because in researching since 1979, I've found no comprehensive source of valid, practical stepfamily information. My guidebook Stepfamily Courtship - How to make three right decisions (Xlibris.com, 2003) is the only available book based on 28 years' professional research and these five common stepfamily hazards and seven safeguard Lessons.

      The sequel, Build a High-nurturance Stepfamily (Xlibris.com, 2003), is for post-courtship readers. There are many other books about stepparenting and stepfamilies. I've read over 40 of them. Each has its own merits, and usually misses the primary problems co-parents need to be aware of.

      See this for suggestions on evaluating stepfamily advice, and this for suggestions on selecting  useful stepfamily books and articles. For perspective, see this, this, and this.

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Q17)  How long after divorce should co-parents wait to re/marry?

      One of three core reasons millions U.S. stepfamily re/marriages fail legally or psychologically is that one or both mates were unaware, and vowed "I do" too soon. Most new nuclear stepfamilies follow one or both partners' divorces.

      All adults and kids in divorcing families need time to (a) grieve their many losses (broken bonds) which usually takes at least several years after adult-couple separation. Use this checklist to expand your awareness about family recovery from separation and legal divorce/s.

      Courting couples also need enough time to (b) get to know each other and related kids and adults, and to (c) learn what they're getting into by progressing at these self-improvement Lessons together. I urge you suitors to not commit until at least 18 months has passed after the most recent divorce or mate death. Longer is safer. See this for more detail.

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Q18)  How soon should I tell my child/ren I'm serious about committing to a new partner?

      Dating after divorce or mate-death will cause your minor and grown kids (and ex mate and key relatives) major questions. They'll need to know about potential major changes that will affect them. Seriously considering re/marriage and/or cohabiting causes major changes  and losses for custodial and visiting kids and key others. It also offers potential benefits!

      I recommend informing your kids clearly as soon as you (a) start dating and (b) seriously considering co-habiting and/or re/marriage. At any age, they need time to...

  • explore how they feel about these new people and your potential stepfamily lifestyle;

  • evolve and ask key questions;

  • test some key things, like "Will I become less important to you? Have less time with you? Be abandoned - again?"); and...

  • start grieving significant losses (broken bonds) to prepare for new attachments.

Hiding your dating and/or potential re/marriage from your kids (and anyone else) is a sure sign of psychjological wounds and is a glaring courtship danger sign.

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Q19)  Is there a best way  to conduct stepfamily courtship?

      Yes!  By partners each (a) acknowledging they're part of a complex stepfamily, (b) committing to work patiently together at these vital self-improvement Lessons before exchanging vows, and (c) heeding these Q&A answers about stepfamilies.

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Q20)  How can I tell if I'm ready to commit to a stepfamily?

      You can be reasonably sure if...

  • you're confident that your true Self (capital "S") has often guided your other other subselves (personality) for well over a year; and you have...

  • read and discussed self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7  together thoroughly, and...

  • filled out and discussed all the worksheets in Lesson 7 honestly, and you...

  • feel stable, clear, and sure of making three right decisions ; and...

  • you honestly feel that none of these danger signs apply to you all; and...

  • your excellent partner has done all these things too.

Gain extra assurance on the last three criteria by working on this study course with your partner for several months.

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Q21)  Why are typical U.S. stepfamilies at higher risk of psychological or legal divorce than average biofamilies (first marriages)?

      Many stepfamily authors and commentators estimate American (legal) re/divorce rates to be 60% to 70%, though I can find no census data to support this. After 36 years' professional study, I believe these five hazards  explain why typical stepfamilies experience significant problems which may promote eventual legal or psychological re/divorce despite mates' prior experience, maturity, and determination.

  • significant psychological wounds in one or both mates

  • ignorances and unawareness of key topics

  • incomplete grieving of prior life losses (broken bonds)

  • making up t5o three unwise commitment choices; and...

  • little informed help with thee stressors locally or in the media.

For average mates, statistics are less important than clear awareness of stepfamily realities and their implications.

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Q22)  How can we tell if we need courtship counseling, and how can we pick an effective stepfamily counselor?

      Typical multi-home stepfamilies differ from "traditional" (intact) biofamilies in over 60 ways. Millions of disillusioned, exhausted American couples eventually re/divorce legally and/or psychologically. Because there is a lot to learn and evaluate before deciding if and when to re/wed, I recommend that no matter how mature, every couple seriously thinking about forming or joining a stepfamily...

  • get informed pre-remarital education,

  • invest time and energy taking and discussing these worksheets, and then...

  • get an informed professional opinion on the feasibility of their re/marriage.

"Informed" means "thoroughly knowledgeable of these 7 Lessons or equivalent. See these questions and answers on counseling, this article, and this unique self-improvement course

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Q24)  How heavily should I weigh my child/ran's opinions in deciding on stepfamily commitments?

      Bio(logical) parents thinking of forming or joining a stepfamily do well to...

keep your personal rights, integrity, and short and long term priorities clear;

inform your kids honestly and promptly if you date a new partner seriously;

educate yourself on these three inevitable stepfamily stressors and decide how you mates should handle them;

assess your minor kids' status on filling their developmental and family-adjustment needs;

listen respectfully to their questions and reactions, and respond factually and clearly; and...

do not let their opinions or needs determine if you should re/marry or whom to commit to.

      If...

  • you're sure your true Self has been guiding your personality,

  • you've found your soulmate, and...

  • you've put in months of honest work at these self-improvement Lessons with your partner,

do let your kids' feelings, needs, grieving-status, and opinions help you to decide when to commit.

       My clinical experience and other researchers suggest that bioparents who consistently put their kids' needs and welfare above their primary relationship (other than emergencies) are at the highest risk of eventual re/divorce.

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Q25)  Are there any helpful guides for planning our wedding and honeymoon?

      Stepfamily weddings and honeymoons are much more emotionally, logistically, and financially complex than first nuptials. They need more planning, discussion, negotiation, and problem-solving with more people. Six resources to help you all make the best short and long-range decisions are...

      If you know any stepfamily mates, ask about their wedding experiences and any tips.

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Q26)  I love the person I'm dating, and I'm not crazy about one (or more) of their kids. Is that likely to improve if we live together?

      If you dislike, disrespect, or distrust one or more potential stepkids, or you sense they don't like or feel comfortable with you, those feelings will shrink over time or they won't. Because there are so many variables, I know of no reliable way to predict which will happen, or when. For more perspective, use this right-stepchild evaluation worksheet.

      Option - identify who is "not crazy" about your potential stepchild - your true Self, or some other personality subselves. If the latter, that's a bigger potential stressor than making friends with your partner's child. See this series of Lesson-1 articles on "parts work" for options. Also, get clear on who your partner will support if you have a conflict with his or her child. If s/he favors the child, red light!

      Typical minor stepkids need to...

  • grieve many losses (broken bonds) from (a) parental divorce or death and (b) re/wedding and/or cohabiting; and they need to...

  • test after major family-system changes to see if they're safe and valued enough.

      Kids who haven't filled these and other family-adjustment needs can often seem hostile or indifferent to a new stepparent and/or to potential stepsiblings or relatives. Time, patience, stepfamily awareness, and shared experiences may or may not reduce or convert these to genuine acceptance and friendship (vs. love).

      Potential stepkids often feel stressed by - and cause - major loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. When these force choices, most minor and adult children will side with a bioparent vs. a potential or legal stepparent, despite the latter being warm, friendly, trustworthy, and empathic. Logic, shoulds, and musts are of little use here.

      Another problem you may experience is that one or more potential stepkids (a) are painful reminders that...

  • you'll never be your partner's first love, and that

  • you must accept your partner's ongoing co-parenting relationship with his or her ex mate/s and prior kids.

You may resent your partner giving more priority to a biochild than to you "too often."

      If so, you may dislike what your stepchild stands for, not the child. You may also have "bad chemistry" - i.e. one-way or mutual dislike. This may mute with time, shared experiences, learning and accepting stepfamily realities, and grieving progress. Stepkids' "other bioparent" and key relatives' acceptances and attitudes are usually major factors.

      See these stepparent-stepchild articles for more perspective and options.

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Q27)  My partner and I disagree on trying to conceive one or more ("ours") kids. How concerned should I be about this?

      You two have a complex values conflict which will probably not change if you commit to each other. One or both of you will have to compromise, vs. the popular alternative of denying or minimizing this primal conflict. This may eventually become a major relationship and stepfamily stressor. Options:

  • ensure your true Selves are guiding your respective personalities;

  • read and honestly discuss this article for more perspective on evolving an effective way to manage inevitable values conflicts;

  • choose a long-range nuclear-stepfamily perspective. and a mutual-respect attitude; Then...

  • use awareness and dig-down skills to illuminate your primary needs and long-term priorities as teammates; and...

  • work at forming realistic stepfamily (vs. biofamily) expectations in making your conception or adoption decisions. 

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Q28)  Other people tell us we'll be forming a stepfamily if we re/marry, but my partner and/or I don't see it that way. Who's right?

      If either of you partners is the single parent of a minor or grown biological or adopted child, you are a psychological (vs. legal) stepfamily.  The challenge here is for you to unearth the real reasons you're reluctant to accept that identity and what it means. 

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Q29)  I feel my partner and I ought to wait and learn more about what we're getting into, and s/he's pushing to re/marry soon. What should we do?

      You have important needs and values (priority) conflicts. I suspect your real discomforts spring from whether you both...

  • are guided by your respective true Selves recently, and...

  • are clear on your respective primary needs and priorities, and whether you each...

  • genuinely value your and your partner's needs and priorities equally, and...

  • are helping each other use win-win problem solving as co-equal partners, vs. opponents.

      For more perspective, read and discuss (a) this summary of five common stepfamily hazards, (b) these courtship danger signs, (c) this overview, and (d) this right-time worksheet. Consider investing in my unique, practical guidebook Stepfamily Courtship (Xlibris.com, 2003), which integrates key articles in this Web site.

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Q30)  My partner is (and/or I am) uncomfortable admitting prior marriages and/or divorces. Is that normal and OK?

      The "discomfort" is real - and is a symptom of the primary problem. The uncomfortable partner probably has significant psychological wounds - specially excessive shame and guilts. Often divorce-related  embarrassment comes from feeling that - no matter how justified - ending your marriage is a personal failure, and other people and/or God will scorn and reject you for breaking your vows. Unfinished or blocked grieving of divorce-related losses (broken bonds) may compound this.

      These clues indicate that a well-meaning false self is probably controlling at least the "uncomfortable" one, or maybe both of you. Unrecovering Grown Wounded Children tend to automatically choose each other as partners repeatedly, despite painful outcomes. Use this to make an initial assessment.

      Options:

  • seek to put your true Selves in charge;

  • work patiently on Lessons 1 thru 7 together, and...

  • help each other to identify your unfilled primary needs (discomforts). 

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Q31)  After all they've been through, I feel strongly my children should come first if we re/marry. My partner seems ambivalent or opposed to that. What should we do?

RED LIGHT!. Two common surface reasons for stepfamily re/divorce are... 

  • the stepparent losing hope s/he'll ever feel primary with their mate, and feeling increasingly hurt, resentful, frustrated, regretful (what have I done?), and despair; and/or...

  • the bioparent wearying of the anxiety, guilt, and resentment of having to choose between their kids' needs, their new partner's needs, their own integrity, and sometimes pleasing other key people.

      Stepfamily loyalty conflicts are inevitable and stressful, and will force bioparents to demonstrate (vs. declare) their true relationship priorities. Read and discuss this challenging long-term solution.

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Q32)  My partner isn't interested in learning about stepfamilies. Should I insist?

      No. Insisting, whining, pleading, and/or nagging will create a toxic "be spontaneous!" paradox which will probably increase your problems. A better solution is to...

  • check to see if your true Self is guiding your personality. If not, work patiently at Lesson 1 and delay any courtship decisions. Otherwise...

  • learn and apply these fundamentals yourself,

  • learn to use respectful ''I message'' assertions with your partner (e.g. "When you show no interest in learning about stepfamilies, I feel _____, and I need _____.");

  • assess whether your partner (a) understands what a stepfamily is, and (b) accepts that by co-committing to each other, you'll form (or join) a normal stepfamily.

      If your partner balks or evades these, it's likely s/he is controlled by a false self. If so - and s/he is unwilling to assess for psychological wounds - ask yourself why you want to commit to a Grown Wounded Child and his/her relatives. Avoiding this question or rationalizing it may indicate codependence and underlying wounds and unawareness.

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Q33)   Is re/marriage with a childless partner more stressful than with a single parent?

      Maybe, depending on many factors. A stepparent who is also a bioparent can usually empathize with his/her partner about child-related issues better than a stepparent who has never conceived or nurtured a child. This can be an asset in managing complex loyalty conflicts.

      On the other hand, when both mates are bioparents and stepparents (a "blended" stepfamily), there are more kids, ex mates, and relatives to juggle, more complicated visitation logistics, and more chances for membership, role, values, and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. All of these can combine to significantly stress mate's primary relationship.

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Q34)  Overall, what are the main suggestions to help us make wise stepfamily-commitment decisions?

      U.S. re/divorce estimates imply that millions of U.S. stepfamily couples commit to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. After 36 years' professional research on why, I propose that these five hazards provide the answer. If so, the best way to make three wise courtship decisions is to...

  • make sure each of you is governed by your wise true Self (Lesson 1); and

  • accept that you're considering forming or joining a stepfamily, and that these hazards will apply to you, your relatives, and your descendents. Then...

  • patiently study, discuss, and apply Lessons 1 thru 7 before you swap vows!

       Options: Read and discuss the unique guidebook Stepfamily Courtship (Xlibris.com, 2003) together. Whether you exchange vows or not, each of you working on Lesson 1 (assess for inherited psychological wounds, and reduce them); and Lesson 2 (build effective communication skills) will significantly improve your and your kids' lives.

      If you're a single parent, note that these recommendations will apply to you and anyone you date seriously...

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      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this Q&A article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or someone else?

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